It's not all killing, shooting, and looting. Well, a lot of it is, of course: GTA 5's version of Los Angeles is a warzone in all but name, filled with pitched battles, rampant crime, and more collateral damage than an American incursion into, well, anywhere in the Middle East.
But if bullets are flying on the streets, it's on my in-game internet connection where the real damage is being done. My Franklin may have started the game as a two-bit hustler and thief, but now he's into something far bigger, something more dangerous, something – dare I say it – more American: buying property and playing the stock market.
It's strange to play GTA as a kind-of portfolio management sim, but then at the same time it fits perfectly with the game's themes of money, control, and corruption. It's also testament to the power of having three different characters and identities. Despite his obvious money-making prowess, having Trevor (who starts the game with the most available cash) trade stocks feels like hiring a middleman for Charles Manson. His MO is take all you can, search and destroy. There's no system to play for him because it doesn't exist in his world.
As for Michael, well, he's a man trapped by his wealth, so why would he want more? Franklin, on the other hand, is perfect for it. Young, ambitious, and just naive enough to let Lester use him to do his own (financial and professional) dirty work. It makes sense for him to want to leverage it all on digital red to, essentially, gamble rather than grind his way to a larger life, like all of his old friends had.
The problem is, for me at least, and for 'my' Franklin, that enough is never enough. Using Lester's tips, I scored big by buying up stock in a firm and then killing the head of its rival. Said stock then shot through the roof. I've done this a few times, and watched the profit roll in.
Well, I would if I could actually come to sell the things, but I've become obsessed with that little stock ticker. I'm also starting to worry about my income from properties, and whether I should expand my empire or consolidate.
An example: after killing an important executive, my shares started to climb rapidly, until I had a return many times my investment. But I wanted more. I wanted to really cash in. And then the stock fell. It's currently at about a ⅓ of it's top-end value. Every day I keep looking at the ticker, hoping it'll go back up. It doesn't.
So I've lost about six hundred grand. It means I can't make my planned investments in local businesses, which would in turn net me more profit per week. Which means I'm now pumping more money into the extremely volatile market to cover the dollars that I should have just cashed out with to begin with. The problem is that LCN is up and down faster than a manic depressive with an addiction to rollercoasters. Soon I'm way, way down. Which means more money on red. And so it goes, on and on.
And then it gets worse. Rockstar's servers – and with them, Bawsaq – go down due to extreme load. All cash placed in there is now worthless, at least for a couple of days until it's sorted out. I'm not ruined, but my plans for the immediate future are.
So I'm back into the mission loop, doing jobs for people here, killing people there, ferrying people around for my cab company. I've had to ditch the cream suit that I'd taken to wearing because it just looks stupid. Strutting around Downtown in a three-piece outfit? Fine. Shooting thugs in some low-rent storage space? Probably not. It's not Vice City anymore. (I am very aware that making sartorial choices based on level of criminality is also stupid. I need help).
It seems silly. It is, after all, fake money, in a fake world. But then, you could say that about most things in video games. Like San Andreas – and many, many others with collectibles – there's a compulsion at work here. Unlike GTA 5 however, most games don't have a fully working (or not, in some instances) stock market for you to get sucked into. And, in my case, spat out of.
The buying of property – and the management of it – is something that fans have clamoured for since GTA 4 released without it. But what's most interesting about its return is how it turned, in part, my desire to progress through what could have been a blood-spattered odyssey into something far more reserved. That the game can enable me to do that – bar some unavoidable nastiness – is commendable, and for those that (in some cases, rightly) criticise the missions in GTA, it shows that there is another way to connect and progress in that world.